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'Tis this pope's gift to be simple

The rise of Pope Francis has certainly raised new questions for Vatican watchers, such as: How significant is it that he has not been wearing cufflinks? In the past, this kind of detail "would be seen as frivolous," noted Rocco Palmo of Philadelphia, whose "Whispers In The Loggia" site is must reading for Catholic insiders. Now, this pope's commitment to beyond-symbolic simplicity is causing religious leaders, journalists, diplomats and Catholics at every level to wrestle with the importance of his Jesuit roots, as well as his devotion to St. Francis of Assisi.

The symbolism began with his introduction, when he wore simple white vestments -- the papal equivalent of street clothes -- and declined a formal, ermine-trimmed red cape. He has been wearing his steel pectoral cross, rather than an ornate gold papal model. He has favored black walking shoes over dramatic red footwear.

Greeting the masses in St. Peter's Square, he bowed and said: "Before the bishop blesses the people I ask that you would pray to the Lord to bless me." Then he rode the bus with the cardinals, one white skullcap among the red ones. He returned to the Domus Paulus VI -- where he roomed pre-conclave -- to collect his luggage and pay his own bill. The pope has been placing some of his own calls, shocking clergy who answer their telephones and find the occupant of St. Peter's throne on the other end of the line.

Pope Francis is so reluctant to change his style, noted Palmo, that this trend even "extends under the white cassock, to boot: the Argentine pontiff's preferences don't just make his move to keep wearing black pants visible through the garment, but likewise highlight the untucked tails of his white dress-shirt.

"In other words, the lack of fuss isn't just a show for the world. But having declined the archbishop's residence in Buenos Aires for a flat where he did his own cooking, and riding around the city on buses and subways without an entourage, that was fairly well-established."

The connections to St. Francis are obvious and, this past weekend, the new pope explained to media professionals why he chose that name. But while telling this story, Pope Francis offered another layer of content for journalists who had ears to hear his deeper, more critical, message.

As the votes lined up in favor of the cardinal from Argentina, he said a friend hugged him and advised, "Don't forget the poor."

"And those words came to me: the poor, the poor," said Pope Francis, according to a Vatican Radio translation. "Then, right away, thinking of the poor, I thought of Francis of Assisi. Then I thought of all the wars. … Francis is also the man of peace. That is how the name came into my heart: Francis of Assisi.

"For me, he is the man of poverty, the man of peace, the man who loves and protects creation. These days we do not have a very good relationship with creation, do we? He is the man who gives us this spirit of peace. … How I would like a church which is poor and for the poor!"

On one level, these remarks to the press focused on issues -- economic justice, peace and the environment -- that are usually framed in political language in news reports. However, Pope Francis stressed that it is crucial for journalists to realize that pivotal religious events, such as his election, cannot be reduced to mere politics.

"Ecclesial events are certainly no more intricate than political or economic events," said the pope. Nevertheless, they "follow a pattern which does not readily correspond to the 'worldly' categories which we are accustomed to use, and so it is not easy to interpret and communicate them to a wider and more varied public. …

"All of this leads me to thank you once more for your work in these particularly demanding days, but also to ask you to try to understand more fully the true nature of the church, as well as her journey in this world, with her virtues and her sins, and to know the spiritual concerns which guide her and are the most genuine way to understand her."

The bottom line? "The church is certainly a human and historical institution with all that that entails," he said, "yet her nature is not essentially political but spiritual."

Apocalyptic visions about Chernobyl

KIEV -- The apocalyptic visions begin just inside the doors of the Ukrainian National Chernobyl Museum and many of them lead straight into the Book of Revelation. The final pages of Christian scripture are full of angels, trumpets, flames, thunder, lighting, earthquakes and catastrophes that shake heaven and earth.

In this museum, the key is in the eighth chapter: "And the third angel sounded, and there fell a great star from heaven, burning as it were a lamp, and it fell upon the third part of the rivers, and upon the fountains of waters. And the name of the star is called Wormwood: and the third part of the waters became wormwood; and many men died of the waters, because they were made bitter."

When Ukrainians translate "wormwood" into their own language it becomes "chernobyl." It's easy to connect the two when discussing the legacy of pain that followed the 1986 disaster at the Chernobyl Power Station north of Kiev, when explosions and fires at the reactor core released a plume of radioactive debris that drifted over Russian and into Europe.

Soviet officials claim a mere 31 died. Ukrainians mock this number, saying it's impossible to calculate the long-term fallout in cancers, birth defects and other forms of human suffering.

"The catastrophe at Chernobyl station took its victims before their time," said Archpriest Andrei Tkachev of St. Agapit of Pechersk Orthodox Church in Kiev. "Man is supposed to meet death in his own time, when he has a chance to prepare to meet God. That kind of death is a gift from God -- a good death.

"That is not what happened for many of the victims of Chernobyl."

The museum opened on April 26, 1992, the fifth anniversary of the disaster and soon after the Soviet Union's collapse. The exhibits include 7,000 artifacts from the 76 towns and villages -- with 76 churches, in this historically Orthodox culture -- that were razed in the radiation-tainted resettlement zone.

The door into a large chamber dedicated to the families and children of Chernobyl leads to the church iconostasis, with a radiation suit hanging in place of the Archangel Michael and barbed wire and a contamination sign blocking the way to the altar. High overhead is an icon of St. Nicholas, the patron saint of endangered children.

The altar is gone, replaced by a boat -- to carry souls over the waters of death -- full of children's toys. Under the boat, the blackness is full of the icons of saints.

The Chernobyl disaster was especially poignant, said Tkachev, because it struck a region that for many symbolized the innocence and safety of the past.

"The people here were simple people. They didn't have writers and journalists to tell their stories," he said. "This is an attempt to tell their story, using what they left behind when they were forced to flee the homes, their schools and their churches. ...

"Modern life separates a man who has deep faith from a man who has little. In these villages, life and faith was simply combined and you can see that here."

In one of the starkest images -- over a map of the stricken region -- the melting reactor literally shatters a famous icon of the Virgin Mary holding the Christ child, while an apocalyptic storm swirls around her.

"We are tempted to think that fire and water and all the elements of nature are at our command, but that is not true," said Tkachev, outside the final exhibit hall. "We can become victims. ... The more technologies are in our lives, the more danger there is that we become their servants, even their slaves."

The archpriest stroked his beard, thinking of another way of stating the ultimate message of this sobering tribute to lessons learned at Chernobyl.

Finally he offered a litany of simple images.

If a man builds a bicycle and it breaks while he is riding it, then he will be hurt when he falls, said Tkachev. If he builds an airplane and it breaks, this man will almost certainly die when it crashes.

"Now, if we build a nuclear reactor in our back yard and it breaks, then the catastrophe will kill many and it may last into future generations," he said. "What this teaches us is that we must fear God and try to be humble about the things that we build with our own hands."

SBC wrestles with corporate sin

Like most people born and raised in Biloxi, Miss., theologian Russell Moore grew up about 10 minutes from the Gulf of Mexico. It cost too much to live near the water, but that didn't really matter since the sights, smells and rhythms of the coast defined the whole community. Driving away from his hometown has always been emotional, but the last time he pulled onto U.S. Highway 90 was different.

Hurricane Katrina was terrible. Now, the locals are facing what some writers have called "Katrina meets Chernobyl."

"I've never left like this, wondering if ... my children's children will ever know what Biloxi was," wrote Moore, in an online meditation about a recent visit. Gazing at Gulf, he knew that "there's a Pale Horse" out there, the rupture in deep water that is creating "plumes of petroleum great enough to threaten to destroy the sea-life there for my lifetime, if not forever.

"Everything is endangered, from the seafood and tourism industries to the crabs and seagulls on the beach to the churches where I first heard the Gospel of Jesus Christ. This is more than a threat to my hometown. ... It is a threat to national security greater than most Americans can even contemplate, because so few of them know how dependent they are on the eco-systems of the Gulf of Mexico."

It would raise few eyebrows if Baptists such as Al Gore, Bill Clinton or Bill Moyers voiced these views. Russell, however, is dean of the theology school at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky., a vital hub for conservatives in the 16 million-member Southern Baptist Convention and in the wider world of evangelicalism.

Moore served as chairman of the resolutions committee this past week in Orlando when Southern Baptists gathered for their annual national meeting. Thus, in addition to dealing with scores of internal SBC issues, the convention also expressed its concerns about the unfolding catastrophe in the Gulf of Mexico.

Noting that the Bible teaches that those who harm the vulnerable should be held accountable, the convention called on "governing authorities to act determinatively and with undeterred resolve to end this crisis; to fortify our coastal defenses; to ensure full corporate accountability for damages, clean-up, and restoration; to ensure that government and private industry are not again caught without planning for such possibilities; and to promote future energy policies based on prudence, conservation, accountability, and safety."

The resolution (.pdf) urged Southern Baptist churches to recruit waves of volunteers for clean-up crews, just as they did after hurricane Katrina.

The resolution stressed that "our God-given dominion over the creation is not unlimited, as though we were gods and not creatures, so therefore, all persons and all industries are then accountable to higher standards than to profit alone."

The key, said Moore, is that Baptists need a broader view of a key word -- "sin."

"A solid doctrine of sin is what has kept most evangelicals from sliding into a utopian view of government," he said, in a telephone interview. "We understand the sin nature of human beings. We understand that checks and balances are needed, when you are dealing with human institutions. Well, now we need to understand that corporations must be watched carefully. Planned Parenthood is a corporation. Playboy is a corporation. British Petroleum is a corporation, too."

The April 20th explosion in the Gulf, said Moore, could be a turning point for many conservative Christians on issues of pollution, ecology and environmental stewardship. It will be hard to ignore the worst oil spill in U.S. history, especially when the wider economic and human toll begins to close church doors and threaten generations of Bible Belt traditions -- like youth camps on or near the beach.

It hasn't helped that the first things most conservative Christians think about when they hear the word "environmentalism" is Hollywood, New Age spirituality and politicos who suggest that human beings are "parasites on a world that would be better off without them," he said.

This evangelical silence has not been constructive.

"This is one of those issues that, if evangelicals concede it to extremists on both sides, we are going to miss our opportunity to let our voices be heard on what the Gospel says about God's creation and our stewardship of the resources we've been given," said Moore. "Without a biblically conservative voice in that debate, something vital will be missing."

Mike Huckabee still believes

Like any other Bible Belt state, Arkansas contains more than its share of church camps.

Gov. Mike Huckabee thought about that after Hurricane Katrina. The ordained Southern Baptist minister also knew that the summer camping season was over and that thousands of people fleeing New Orleans had to go somewhere.

"I saw on TV people on the bridges of Interstate 10 stranded for days without water, and I thought, this isn't Rwanda. This isn't Indonesia. ... This was the United States of America," said the former governor, who is now part of the throng of Republican presidential candidates. "These were the neighbors just to the south of us in Louisiana. It was beyond my comprehension that we could get TV cameras to those people but we couldn't get a boat or a bottle of water to them."

Thus, he asked religious leaders to open camps all over Arkansas to the evacuees, while urging the public to rally around this blunt public policy: "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you."

This was one case in which critics didn't challenge his link between private faith and public action, said Huckabee, meeting with journalists at a recent talkback session at the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life. This didn't turn into another nasty clash between God and the government because the need was great and this faith-based effort united citizens instead of dividing them.

Activists on the right will have to do more of that. Of course, Huckabee told the journalists that he has no intention of surrendering on moral issues such as abortion and same-sex marriage. Nevertheless, religious conservatives need to be less confrontational when it comes to convincing skeptical Americans that faith can be a positive force in the public square.

After all, he said, it's hard to believe that anyone actually thinks that political leaders are supposed to separate their personal beliefs from their public convictions.

"I sometimes marvel when people running for office are asked about faith and their answer is, 'Oh, I don't get into that. I keep that completely separate. My faith is completely immaterial to how I think and how I govern,' " he said. "To me, that is really tantamount to saying that one's faith is so marginal, so insignificant and so inconsequential that it really doesn't impact the way one lives. I would consider it an extraordinarily shallow faith that does not really impact the way we think about other human beings and the way we respond to them."

No one debated that concept after Katrina. Thus, Huckabee listed several other unifying moral issues that he thinks deserve attention on the political right.

While Americans disagree on what to do about health-care reform, the nation could rally around efforts to provide health care for children, he said. Liberals and conservatives also could focus on funding health-care programs that fight the big three activities -- smoking, overeating and "under-exercising" -- that fuel soaring medical costs.

While Huckabee acknowledged that environmental issues cause heated debates, he believes that it's time for conservatives to become more involved in efforts to promote the "better stewardship of the environment and in development of an energy source that is not foreign based but domestically produced."

And then there is the issue of corporate corruption, with business leaders drawing giant bonuses while wrecking their companies. Surely, conservatives can agree that this is immoral, said Huckabee.

"I don't see how we can call it anything other than a moral issue," he said. "That's not free enterprise. That's theft."

The point is that religious conservatives are will have to broaden their agendas and be willing to work on new issues, said Huckabee. They can do this without compromising on the essentials.

"I really do think that if Christian conservatives, who have ... held the Republican Party's feet to the fire on issues as they relate to traditional conservative social areas, no longer play that role, it not only is going to be the end of relevancy for them, but I also think that it means that the Republican Party will lose a lot of people. They will say, 'Well, you know what, if they're not going to be the party that really cares about these issues, I'll go home to the Democratic Party.' A lot of those folks came from the Democratic Party to begin with."